A large part of the Book of Leviticus deals with holiness—an enigmatic spiritual topic which fascinated our ancestors, and continues to be difficult to define. This parsha/Torah portion begins by recounting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the two oldest sons of Aaron, the Kohen Gadol/High Priest, who met untimely deaths while performing a religious service before God, for reasons still uncertain. Later in Scripture, we find also the case of Uzzah, who, during King David’s triumphant procession to Jerusalem, reaches out to the Holy Ark to steady it on its wagon when the pulling ox-team stumble. For his impertinence in physically touching the Ark, God strikes him dead (II Samuel 6:6-7). Coming too close to the Holy with improper intent or physicality may, we learn, lead to catastrophe, and, often, death.
For our ancestors, therefore, holiness meant an energy-center whose misuse or misapprehension could be dangerous. It is noteworthy that the Ark was a wooden box, coated inside and out with gold, making it a powerful conductor of electricity—Uzzah might have been electrocuted. What meaning can we moderns find in this labyrinthine religious concept of holiness?
Over the course of our lives, we come into contact with the Holy many, many times—it can be a physical connection, as when we touch and kiss the Torah scroll when an honoree carries it around the sanctuary. (I have heard from congregants what a wonderful thrill they get, to be the literal “bearers” of this supreme mitzvah/commandment, allowing their fellow Jews to touch, caress, and kiss our eternal treasure.)
The Torah is such an awesome source of holiness that it can never become unholy or tameh, the word meaning “impure” in the spiritual sense. Back in the 1980’s, when Conservative temples nationwide were debating whether to allow women onto the bema/podium for an aliyah/Torah honor, I often pointed out that the Torah is so holy, in and of itself, that it cannot possibly become tameh/impure. This was the chief reason of the anti-feminist camp, who conveniently ignored that men, as well as women, ought to visit the mikvah/ritual bath prior to Shabbat and major holidays, or following a nocturnal emission. Seen in this light, the Torah is an enormous spiritual storage battery, containing enough “religious energy” to radiate outward onto us, its adherents, and change our lives in meaningful ways, through studying it.
We encounter the Holy at lifecycle events, as well, whether at baby-naming ceremonies, b’nai mitzvah, weddings, and even funerals. We marvel at the swift passage of time, and use these holy gatherings to slow down our lives and acknowledge God’s myriad visits to His earthly realm. One must have a heart of holiness to detect God’s Presence in one’s life. When we decide what our life’s purpose will be, when we decide where we will live and with whom, God tips the decision for the good, and this is holiness. In the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Earth’s crammed with heaven/ And every common bush afire with God;/ But only he who sees, takes off his shoes./ The rest sit ‘round and pick at blackberries.”
And now, once again, Pesach has come. With your permission, Readers, I will offer this blessing:
Dear God: as we enter Your Holy Season of Pesach, recounting the passage of Your People from slavery to freedom, help us not to become entrapt in the details of kitniyote/beans, the criminally high price of Paysadik/Kosher-for-Passover provender, or the myriad minutiae of transforming one’s house, nay one’s soul, into a fitting Mishkan/dwelling-place, for You—
Rather, we pray that, on this blue-white planet, this erring orb on which so many of Your children fail to see that we are all, all of us, made in Your image, refusing to consider making even a shred of peace with one another—
That You will turn to us in comfort and love. Help us to reach out, beyond the bonds of matzah and bitter herb, charoset and parsley, dew-prayers (the visible sign of Your Grace) and Omer-reckonings,
To a new Spring of the Spirit—and may We Jews, as well as our Neighbors of all Faiths and of no-faith, join together to raise a new temple to You, and to beckon—just beckon, mind You—a bit of Your Spirit, down, upon us, and our families and friends. Amen v’Amen. Selah.